Photo Courtesy of Patrick Tomasso
San Francisco is a diverse city that often finds itself on the edge of social and technological change. The small city has long been a haven for marginalized groups, but it is also a place that is grappling with its identity in the throes of a tech boom. To really know San Francisco, you must explor…e its neighborhoods. Look for taquerias and techies in the Mission, rainbow flags flying above the Castro, earnest hippie vibes in the Haight, and beachy quietude in the Sunset. Visitors will find the city welcoming and full of activities for nature lovers, bookworms, shoppers, foodies, cultural mavens, and more.
What to know before you go to San Francisco
San Francisco is renowned for its cold, foggy summers. However, when September and October come around, the character lovingly known as Karl the Fog recedes, and temperatures can climb into the low 80s on the hottest days. Late winter can see some rain, but rarely much. Overall, the unique geography of this peninsula, bound as it is by the Bay and the Pacific, creates pockets of both warm and cool weather all year long. Dress in layers, and be prepared to encounter a range of temperatures as you make your way around the city.
San Francisco Airport is about 25 minutes from downtown by taxi, which will cost you about $45. The quickest option is to catch an Uber or Lyft, but make sure to walk to the Departures terminal; these services are not allowed to pick up passengers from the Arrivals level. The major public transportation system, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), goes directly from the airport to downtown and across the bridge to the East Bay.
BART trains, Muni trains, buses, cable cars, and trams traverse the city. Most rides cost about $2.75, and you can buy tickets and passes in any of the stations. If you're getting on a bus, Muni train, or cable car at a street stop, you can pay in cash as long as you provide exact change. Taxis are readily available, as are rideshare services like Uber, Lyft, and Flywheel, all of which you can use through apps you can download on your smartphone. It's also fairly easy to rent bicycles from the Bay Area Bike Share program, which has terminals throughout the downtown area.
The far northwestern corner of the city, called Land’s End, is where the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean meet. The view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands is spectacular here, and active visitors will find it an ideal spot for hiking and trail biking. When you're done taking in the panoramic vista, take in some timeless works of art at the nearby Legion of Honor.
San Francisco is a hotbed for the locavore movement, and destinations like the San Francisco Ferry Building—with farmers’ markets on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays—offer a glimpse at the culinary bounty that grows in the nearby Central Valley of California. Look for fresh, ingredient-driven cuisine at innovative new restaurants (splurge at Saison), iconic standbys (splurge a little less at Zuni), and a vast array of affordable ethnic restaurants. Take your pick from Mexican, Shanghai, Uighur, Hunan, Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Korean, and many more.
San Francisco is a great museum city, anchored by three landmark buildings. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) offers an eclectic contemporary collection. The de Young Museum, located near the center of Golden Gate Park, focuses on the art of the Americas. The Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, houses a strong collection of European art and high-profile visiting exhibitions. Travelers will also find a burgeoning gallery scene and street art scene throughout the city. Wander the alleys of the Mission, and try to find the city's four Diego Rivera murals. The Bay Area’s legacy as the home of Beat poets, funk artists, and jazz innovators lends additional cultural variety to the mix.
Summer music festivals like Outsidelands and weekly Sunday Streets block parties provide plenty of entertainment, and June's Gay Pride Festival is a month-long celebration of equality. On the first Sunday of each month, flea market aficionados should look for the Alameda Point Antiques Faire, a huge market on an old navy base in the nearby East Bay.
- When planning a trip to San Francisco, the most frequent warning you will hear pertains to the weather. This may be California, but don’t expect to be wearing your flip flops. Summer is all about the fog, although the sun does break through—especially in neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city, such as Noe Valley and the Mission.
- Depending on where you’re staying, a car will probably not be necessary, as public transportation, cabs, and various rideshares will be at your service. However, car rentals are plentiful if you do want to get out of town—traditional rental companies as well as peer-to-peer car sharing services like Getaround, Zipcar, and City CarShare.
- If you have time, it's absolutely worth your while to make a day-trip from the city to see the gorgeous coast and wine country north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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Davina Baum has been in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1996. She has lived and worked in Oakland, the North Bay, the South Bay, and San Francisco, and relishes exploring each region and neighborhood.